BEIRUT: The war in Syria is poised to become even worse for mainstream rebels if hard-liners push through with plans to attack controversial targets, as propaganda and media coverage often distort what is happening on the ground.
One recent flashpoint has been the southern suburbs of Damascus, where activists and opposition figures are scathing in their criticism of military tactics by the sometimes-cooperating, sometimes-feuding rebel militias.
A rebel attack on the border between the suburbs of Mliha and Jaramana grabbed headlines over the weekend, when a suicide bombing operation by the Al-Qaeda-inspired Nusra Front paved the way for a takeover of a strategically located factory complex.
Defenders of the rebels’ tactic say it will help them approach and target the Air Defense Administration building nearby, but critics say it brings the fighting directly to next-door Jaramana, which has a large Druze and Christian population. The suburb was already teeming with Iraqi refugees who had arrived over the last decade, and in the last two years it has become home for thousands of displaced Syrians, mainly from Sunni-majority areas.
A Druze source active in opposition political circles said the Nusra Front had relayed the message that it would be attacking Jaramana this week, which the source called a potentially catastrophic move.
“The rebels should be eating up Damascus, starting with Abbassiyin [home to army and intelligence sites] instead of hitting Jaramana,” the source said.
He also complained that hard-line rebel militias were arresting civilian activists in the suburbs of the eastern Ghouta, a method many have criticized as resembling the regime’s behavior.
The confrontations that pit hard-line Islamists versus secular activists or non-ideological FSA units in Greater Damascus are an echo of similar tension and clashes between these groups across areas of the north and northeast.
“All of [these militias] are working against the revolution, against the drive to topple the regime,” the source said.
The rebel actions, or lack thereof, in Greater Damascus extend to the southwestern suburb of Moadamieh, which has been in the headlines because of the horrific humanitarian conditions in the rebel-held majority of the town.
Another opposition activist source stressed that the FSA rebels in Moadamieh were largely locals, without significant political-material support or ties to Al-Qaeda.
In Greater Damascus in general, both sources pointed to the frustrating performance of the Islam Brigade, which leads a group of some 50 formations and is believed to be awash in weaponry and funding.
One of the main civilian activist networks, the Union of Coordinating Committees of the Syrian Revolution, has slammed the rebel brigades for their lack of action to relieve the pressure on Moadamieh.
In a statement issued Friday, the group threatened to expose the militias that have “used their weapons in a way that doesn’t serve the interest of the revolution and are in fact carrying out agendas that have nothing to do with the revolution.”
While the Saudi Arabia-backed Islam Brigade, the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham network and the jihadist Nusra Front have been fighting in various suburbs of the capital, none has managed to change the equation in Moadamieh.
The sources described the militias’ actions as being a case of doing just enough, often by getting on YouTube, to convince backers to continue the flow of money and weapons.
“Neither the regime nor the hard-line Islamists have an interest in taking each other on directly” in large-scale fashion, one activist said.
“The Nusra Front just wants to get stronger and not lose; it has no intention of really sacrificing” to achieve devastating blows against the regime, he continued. Some in the opposition accuse the Nusra Front or other Islamist factions of being in league with the regime, to weaken the nationalist FSA and the small, local forces with weak outside political connections.
The source described other fronts that have seen activity recently as being complicated to assess.
“In Deir al-Zor, the Nusra Front made a big deal about the attack” last week that killed intelligence chief Jamaa Jamaa, he said. “In reality, the Deir al-Zor rebels are overwhelmingly locals, organized along tribal and other local lines.”
However, he continued, the Nusra Front gets the attention in an area he described as relatively ignored by media coverage.
“And then you have groups like the Tawhid Brigade; it publicizes campaigns in areas such as the province of Hama, announcing the taking of village after village, but without significant military value,” the source argued.
“What do they want with villages in rural Hama?” he asked. “These kinds of groups just wage ‘battles’ to get support and show that they’re active. The competition among them is more important than toppling the regime.”
Foreign backers and financiers in the Gulf and elsewhere have their agendas, but the diversity of players continues to generate a stalemate, with no one apparently interested in delivering a knockout punch to the regime.
The next “decisive” battle, in the eyes of some analysts and political sources, will be in Qalamoun, an area lying roughly north of Damascus, and adjacent to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
The regime and its Hezbollah allies, according to some sources, have begun a concerted offensive against the largely rebel-held mountainous area, as government airstrikes picked up this week.
The Druze source questioned whether the regime’s intent to mount a sustained campaign was really serious, while noting that the Islam Brigade had already begun pulling fighters out of Greater Damascus to support the locals in Qalamoun.
“Why advertise a campaign before it happens?” he asked.
Pro-regime media promoted the idea that loyalist forces would go all-out to retake Aleppo after the fall of the town of Qusair in June, but it didn’t materialize into a sustained offensive.
“The regime did the same thing with Aleppo, to cover actions elsewhere,” the source said.
Another disappointment for the mainstream, nationalist opposition will come when the hard-line rebels end up fighting in Christian-majority villages and towns, sparking even more criticism of their tactics. As a seeming response to the regime’s nearby Qalamoun offensive, rebels this week surprised the government forces by attacking the Christian-majority village of Sadad, east of the Damascus-Homs highway.
While Sadad might be a legitimate military target due to its geographic location, any incidents of Christians losing their lives will be pounced on by the regime and its supporters as further evidence of the jihadists’ sectarian agenda.
The killing of five people in Sadad, presumably by rebel sniper fire, was reported Wednesday.
The seemingly haphazard flaring up of fronts is an apt metaphor for the tensions that dominate inter-rebel relations, with the hardliners increasingly accused of fighting the wrong battles at the wrong time.
Opposition media have also reported that both FSA and Islamist rebels are moving their attacks in Hama province closer to the town of Sqailbieh, which has a majority Christian population.
The moves by rebel militias against areas inhabited by religious minorities infuriate secular activists and others who would like to see the nerve centers of the regime targeted instead.
“The rebels hold a lot of territory,” one activist complained. “But the majority of military facilities they’ve taken are small facilities – stations, mainly, not major bases.”
This tactic does nothing to dislodge regime forces from the inner lines to which they have retreated, he continued.
The debate over the priorities continues, based on the slogans of the last two Friday nationwide protests: A call to save Moadamieh from its plight was preceded by a call to rebel factions to stop fighting each other and instead unite their efforts.
A young demonstrator in the province of Idlib held a sign that urged rebels to head for Homs, “the heart of the snake,” and Latakia, “the head of the snake,” referring to the home province of President Bashar Assad.
Homs and Latakia have seen much violence, but little overall change in the military equation.
The other key front, naturally, is the central part of Damascus itself, but no faction has shown itself ready or willing to undertake the endeavor.
In recent weeks, with the prospect of Geneva II peace negotiations looming, a series of small groups of rebel battalions have announced their “unification” via YouTube, but it remains to be seen whether this will have any political or military impact.
Mainstream rebels blame the jihadists for imposing their agenda and clashing with the FSA and highlight the opposition National Coalition’s failure to provide sufficient material or other support.
A rebel fighter based in Safira, south of Aleppo, issued a call Tuesday via YouTube to the various factions to drop their infighting in rebel-held areas, saying they should leave such places to their residents and instead head for Safira.
He also addressed the National Coalition, issuing the usual scathing criticism of its lack of material support or guidance.
“[The regime] is using a scorched-earth policy – what are you using? A policy of tables and dialogue, and negotiations above and below the table” in the run-up to Geneva II, he alleged.
On Monday, residents of the eastern Damascus suburb of Douma held a short demonstration to chant “one hand,” a call to the various Islamist militias and mainstream FSA groups to unite.
It would represent a radical change from the current situation.
A rebel fighter in Safira criticizes infighting in rebel ranks, and the National Coalition’s lack of support or strategy.